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Physics Is there a non-academic future in Quantum computing?

  1. Nov 29, 2016 #1
    (tl;dr: Interested in the hardware side of quantum computing, but don't want to commit to staying in academia. Is getting an industry job in quantum computing going to be realistic in 6-8 years? Are there other viable engineering-type jobs available if I end up getting a PhD in this field?)

    Hi all,

    I'm a Junior undergraduate physics major and I feel like I'm getting to the point in my academic career where I should start seriously considering what I want to do for the rest of my life. I'm a fairly average student at a pretty amazing physics department (most common grad schools are UC Berkeley and CU Boulder, many students are at UChicago, Cornell, Caltech, Stanford, etc.) and I have some pretty involved research experience in Quantum Optics that started this past summer and will continue until the end of my time here. Overall, I think my graduate school prospects are decent - I probably won't go to Harvard or MIT, but I think I have a reasonable chance of going to a really strong program.

    I'm really interested in computing at a fundamental level, and the Computer Engineering course I'm in has definitely contributed to that, even though it's an engineering course and not a physics course. I like the idea of working on the hardware development side of quantum computing, because I think it'd let me use the physics I like towards an application that's interesting and useful. My research is nominally related to quantum computing, but for the most part I'm doing fairly fundamental optics experiments that may someday prove useful to someone (or not). I think I'd like to move towards working with superconducting qubits, as this seems to be where the most progress that's been made and where there's the most overlap with traditional computer engineering problems. I don't really have any experience with this though, so maybe I'm completely off-base.

    Going to a top-tier school has allowed me to meet a lot of super motivated and super passionate students that will certainly be great academics, but I'm not sure I can consider myself one of them. I love Physics, and I love some of the work I've done, but honestly most weekends I wish I could unplug, go for a hike, and come back more refreshed to work the next week. As such, I'm not sure I'm really cut out for an academic lifestyle and I don't want to get a PhD that pidgeonholes me into a specific academic subfield without industry opportunities.

    I know that in recent years private quantum computing companies have started to pop up and even bigger hardware companies like IBM have started to invest. This gives me hope that these jobs might be available for me when I'm completing my PhD in eight or so years, but I'd be interested to hear the perspective of someone closer to the field to know if this is something I could realistically strive for. Barring that, I'm also interested in digital design and computer architecture - is this something I could perhaps look into as a back up after completing a PhD, or will there be no overlap in skills? I've also considered looking into microdevice physics or something similar for my PhD as a more industry-applicable subject if quantum computing looks like it won't lead to job prospects. Am I at all realistic about my career expectations, or am I way off-base?

    Sorry for the wall of text. I hope that most of what I wrote is at least relevant context towards my questions. Thanks for reading - I'd be really interested to hear the perspectives of those of you with more experience in the field than I.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 29, 2016 #2


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    Not really, at least on in the foreseeable future.
    There are indeed a few companies actively involved in research in this area (Google, IBM, D-Wave etc). However, the work is being done in labs which could just as easily be part of a university (and in the case Google is, their superconducting QC group is based at UCSB); the organizational structure is a bit different but the "lifestyle" is very similar. It is -from what I've been told- very similar to e.g. working at a national lab.
    Note that this is true of just about any up-and-coming field, it takes quite a long time for a field to mature to the point where more industry-oriented jobs become commonplace.
  4. Jan 4, 2017 #3
    so in the future, will we not be able to purchase a quantum computer like we can with a conventional computer today? Will quantum computing ever be useful enough for everyday applications?
  5. Jan 4, 2017 #4
    I don't see a big employment sector in quantum computing for at least 20 years.
  6. Jan 5, 2017 #5


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    Who knows?
    It also depends on what you mean by "everyday applications". Most of the "known" applications of QC are quite specialized (say solving certain problems in chemistry or solving some classes of optimization problems) and there is -as far as we know- no reason why there would even be a true mass-market for such devices; anymore than there is a mass market for DSP cards (which doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of companies selling such cards to e.g. investment banks).

    Note also that we will (probably) never buy a "quantum computer" as such; computers made using traditional architecture work extremely well for most situations; the most likely scenario is that we will use QC as the aforementioned DSP cards: i.e. as "add on devices" used for solving certain math problem.
  7. Jan 5, 2017 #6
    what your saying is quantum computing has very strong scientific applications? But not necessarily everyday applications like Microsoft Word or maybe a computer video game?
  8. Jan 6, 2017 #7


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    Not only scientific applications; there are many potential applications in engineering, finance (optimization problems), medicine etc.
    However, none of these applications would be of interest to the average user.
    Again, compare it to the market for say DSP cards (which are used by engineers and banks for fast calculations) or perhaps high-end graphics cards used for CAD.
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